Of all the herbs we can grow in our gardens, Fennel has as many valuable uses as its close cousins, parsley, carrot, coriander and dill. They are all members of the Apiaceae plant family, native to southern Europe but naturalized throughout the world.
Fennel is the characteristic sweet flavor that dominates sausage and Italian pasta sauces. It is a nutritious addition to salads, and is a must-have for butterfly and pollinator gardeners.
The bulbs are cooked with other root vegetables such as carrots, onions and garlic for a hot side dish and baked with pasta for an entrée. The stalks are added to stock to make broths.
Fennel contains Vitamin C, potassium, manganese, copper, phosphorus, folate, calcium, and iron plus the phytonutrients, flavonoids, antioxidants, anti-inflammatory, and liver protection (http://hort.li/1rxe).
In French and Italian cooking, Fennel has been a key player for hundreds of years. In Greek myths Fennel was associated with the god of food and wine, Dionysus.
One of the best-known medicinal uses for Fennel is mixing Fennel water with sodium bicarbonate and syrup to make Gripe Water for soothing infants’ indigestion. Fennel tea or juice is made by pouring a half pint of boiling water on a teaspoon of seeds.
Add Fennel leaves, stems or bulbs to apple, ginger, carrot, beet, cucumber and lime for a beverage or smoothie.
There are two distinctions between Fennel varieties: The types that make large, edible bulbs and those that do not. All Foeniculum varieties are easy to grow and seeds are best planted mid-summer.
Most varieties grow 4 to 5 feet tall but Florence, called finocchio or azoricum is smaller with a larger root.
Smokey or Bronze Fennel is very popular for kitchen and garden though it does not form bulbs.
If the flower heads are pinched off, the stems become thick and can be blanched for the table.
It also has feathery purple leaves that can be used in flower arrangements. Johnny’s Seeds has 1,000 Bronze Fennel seeds for $4 at www.johnnyseeds.com.
Bulbing Fennel is called finocchio or Florence fennel. Fedcoseeds.com sells Perfection Fennel that they say is the best bulber, developing the fewest stalks but large bulbs for cooking.
Seeds of Change.com sells Zefa Fino Florence which is an old Italian variety with flat, elongated bulbs (100 seeds for $3.49).
Seeds from Italy (growitalian.com) offers several varieties with descriptions, including non-bulbing, bulbing and Fennel Bianco Perfezione Sel Fano-White Perfection for fall planting. Sand Mountain Herbs sells 100 Fennel azoricum seeds for $2 at www.sandmountainherbs.com.
Fennel can become perennial since it is cold hardy to zone 7. Farther north it is grown as an annual.
Plant pre-soaked seeds 1/4th inch deep in full sun (http://hort.li/1rDI). Plants mature in 80 to 100 days. Fennel can take some afternoon shade but cannot tolerate soil that is constantly water logged.
When the seedlings emerge, plant them 6 to 12-inches apart to allow room for plants to grow large. Space rows 3-feet apart. Plant Fennel away from other herbs since it cross-pollinates with other herbs readily. It self-seeds quite a bit in our garden so if you prefer to manage the amount you grow, remove the seed heads before they mature.
The Eastern Black Swallowtail, Papilio polyxenes and Anise Swallowtail butterfly, Papilio zelicaon, use Fennel as a host. If swallowtail butterflies visit your garden they may lay eggs and their caterpillars will eat the plants bare in the process of making the next generation of butterflies.